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Putin and Erdogan Agree to Syria Ceasefire As Violence Escalates

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  • Amid concerns that Turkey and Russia could be drawn into direct conflict in Syria, Turkish President Erdogan and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire.
  • New tensions broke out last week between Turkey and the Syrian regime— which is backed by Russia— after the regime launched airstrikes that killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers. Turkey responded by launching a military offensive against the Syrian government. 
  • While the new offensive marks an increase in hostilities, the recent escalation has been ongoing since the Syrian regime tried to take over the last rebel holdout, displacing nearly one million refugees.
  • Turkey, which believes the EU has not given it enough money to deal with the massive influx of refugees, retaliated by opening its border with Greece, which has created a separate problem in the region.

Renewed Conflict

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire in Syria Thursday amid recent escalations in the region.

Tensions between Turkey and Syria were heightened in December after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia, ramped up his military effort to take over the Idlib province. Idlib remains the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

The conflict reached a breaking point last week when the Syrian regime launched airstrikes that killed at least 33 Turkish troops, marking the worst military losses the Turkish army has seen in a single attack throughout the nine-year war in Syria.

Shortly after, Turkey launched a counteroffensive against the Syrian regime dubbed Operation Spring Shield.

Since then, violence has broken out all over Idlib. Turkey has launched airstrikes, ground offensives, and downed planes while Syrian forces have fought back. 

Right now, it is unclear how many people on both sides have died due to difficulties assessing the situation on the ground and efforts by the Turkish government to censor independent media.

The conflict is incredibly significant as it represents the largest and most serious escalation of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war. In fact, some experts have even described it as a direct war between Turkey and the Syrian regime.

This is quite notable because the conflicts between Turkey and Syrian have largely been fought through and with proxies. The two rarely confront each other, which makes the stakes even higher.

Russia, NATO, and the Ceasefire

While the new ceasefire reached by the two leaders may alleviate the situation, many are still worried that the new outbreak of violence could risk drawing Russia into a direct war with Turkey.

While Russia has been backing Syria, they have denied all responsibility for the airstrikes that killed the Turkish troops and set the offensive in motion.

Turkey, for its part, has been very careful not to directly blame Russia for the airstrike and instead has fully placed the fault on the Syrian regime.

While that might not be entirely true, the situation is complicated. By not implicating Russia, Turkey may be able to deescalate the situation and leave the door open for diplomacy.

To that point, Turkey has also said its operation is not meant to confront Russia.

Russia, at least for now, has refrained from intervening, which does seem to indicate that it does not want to get drawn into a war with Turkey.

Still, if something were to happen, it could create a situation where Turkey could be in direct conflict with Russian and Iranian forces, which also back the Syrian regime.

That, in turn, could drag in more powers. Turkey is a NATO member, and as badly as NATO, Europe, the U.S., and other Turkish allies do not want to involved in a war against Russia, they might not have much of a choice if things get worse.

There is also a problem with putting too much faith in a ceasefire: it did not work before.

Russia and Turkey agreed to another ceasefire under the 2018 Sochi agreement, but that largely fell apart.

While the details of the current ceasefire are still being hashed out, it is unclear if the new agreement will be more effective or if it will ultimately have the same fate.

Refugees and Greece

There is also another problem that has come from the Syrian regime trying to gain power over Idlib— refugees.

Idlib is home to about three million people, many of whom are refugees who have been forced from other parts of Syria.

Since Dec. 1, nearly one million people have been displaced by the Syrian regime— the biggest single displacement since the war started.

Many of those civilians are women and children, and many are living in dangerous conditions, sleeping outside or in tents in below-freezing conditions.

When Erdogan announced that he was starting the offensive, he also said that he was opening Turkey’s borders with Greece to Syrian refugees.

Greece, which has already taken in 3.7 million refugees, condemned the move.

It accused Turkey of using the refugees as “pawns” to pressure the European Union (E.U.) into giving them more money for the refugee crisis or to support their goals in the Syrian war.

This has also been echoed by the E.U. Council, which said in a statement that it “expresses its solidarity with Greece” and “strongly rejects Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes.”

Over the last few days, the situation has escalated rapidly. Greek forces have prevented the refugees from entering, reportedly pushing them back into Turkey.

Turkey responded Wednesday by sending 1,000 police to the border to resist the pushback. The Turkish government also accused Greece of firing live rounds at the refugees, killing at least three.

Greece denied the claims, calling them “fake news.”

Meanwhile, the Greek government said their border forces had prevented nearly 35,000 people from entering over the past five days, and arrested 244. It also said it is preparing to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Axios) (Vox)

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Leaked Documents and Photos Give Unprecedented Glimpse Inside Xinjiang’s Detention Camps

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The so-called vocational schools, which China claims Uyghurs enter willingly as students, oversee their detainees with watchtowers armed with machine guns and sniper rifles, as well as guards instructed to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape.


Detained for Growing a Beard

The BBC and a consortium of investigative journalists have authenticated and published a massive trove of leaked documents and photographs exposing the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in unprecedented detail.

According to the outlet, an anonymous source hacked several police computer servers in the northwestern Xinjiang province, then sent what has been dubbed the Xinjiang police files to the scholar Dr. Adrian Zenz, who gave them to reporters.

Among the files are more than 5,000 police photographs of Uyghurs taken between January and July 2018, with accompanying data indicating at least 2,884 of them were detained.

Some of the photos show guards standing nearby with batons.

The youngest Uyghur photographed was 15 at the time of their detention, and the oldest was 73.

One document is a list titled “Relatives of the Detained,” which contains thousands of people placed under suspicion for guilt by association with certain family members. It includes a woman whose son authorities claimed had “strong religious leanings” because he didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He was jailed for ten years on terrorism charges.

The files also include 452 spreadsheets with information on more than a quarter of a million Uyghurs, some of whom were detained retroactively for offenses committed years or even decades ago.

One man was jailed for ten years in 2017 because he “studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother” for a few days in 2010.

Authorities targeted hundreds more for their mobile phone use, like listening to “illegal lectures” or downloading encrypted apps. Others were punished for not using their phones enough, with “phone has run out of credit” listed as evidence they were trying to evade digital surveillance.

One man’s offense was “growing a beard under the influence of religious extremism.”

The Most Militarized Schools in the World

The files include documents outlining conditions inside Xinjiang’s detention camps, or so-called “Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers.”

Armed guards occupy every part of the facilities, with machine guns and sniper rifles stationed on watchtowers. Police protocols instruct guards to shoot to kill any so-called “students” trying to escape if they fail to stop after a warning shot.

Any apprehended escapees are to be taken away for interrogation while camp management focuses on “stabilizing other students’ thoughts and emotions.”

The BBC used the documents to reconstruct one of the camps, which data shows holds over 3,700 detainees guarded by 366 police officers who oversee them during lessons.

If a “student” must be transferred to another facility, the protocols say, police should blindfold them, handcuff them and shackle their feet.

Dr. Zenz published a peer-reviewed paper on the Xinjiang police files, in which he found that more than 12% of Uyghur adults were detained over 2017 and 2018.

“Scholars have argued that political paranoia is a common feature of atrocity crimes,” he wrote. “Here, it is suggested that the pre-emptive internment of large numbers of ordinary citizens can be explained as a devolution into political paranoia that promotes exaggerated threat perceptions.”

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Newsweek) (The Guardian)

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Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China

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Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.


Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion

During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.

A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”

“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.

Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.

Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.

The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.

Biden Sparks Controversy

The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.

“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.

Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.

Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.

“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”

“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”

“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”

Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.

The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)

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Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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